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Facebook report on anti-conservative bias underscores need for transparency

FILE- This March 28, 2018, file photo shows the Facebook logo at the company's headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)
FILE- This March 28, 2018, file photo shows the Facebook logo at the company's headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)
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An audit intended to address allegations of anti-conservative bias at Facebook has done little to silence concerns about the social media giant’s handling of politically controversial content, and a new interim report on the probe has drawn criticism from the right and the left ahead of an election season where the company’s moderation policies will again fall under harsh partisan scrutiny.

“Facebook has recognized the importance of our assessment and has taken some steps to address the concerns we uncovered. But there is still significant work to be done to satisfy the concerns we heard from conservatives,” wrote former Republican Sen. Jon Kyl in a report released Tuesday.

Kyl’s team at the law firm Covington and Burling met with approximately 133 conservative organizations, individuals, and lawmakers to discuss complaints about Facebook’s treatment of right-leaning users. According to Kyl, their allegations fell into six categories: content distribution and algorithms, content policies, content enforcement, ad policies, ad enforcement, and workforce viewpoint diversity.

Among the claims made:

  • A January 2018 change to Facebook’s news feed algorithm that favored broadly trusted sources diminished the reach of conservative news content
  • Facebook’s definitions of “hate speech” and “hate organizations” are too subjective
  • Complex and confusing content standards disproportionately flag anti-abortion, socially conservative, and religious content
  • Facebook’s definition of “political” advertising clashes with IRS definitions and election laws
  • Facebook’s policies are written and enforced unfairly by liberal employees and its board of directors lacks conservative members

Kyl’s eight-page interim report offers no quantitative evidence or data to back up any bias accusations, citing instead the beliefs and feelings of interviewees. Recurring themes are a fear that Facebook’s mechanisms to police and prioritize content disadvantage conservatives and that its practices and review procedures are too opaque to be trusted.

“Interviewees opined that Facebook’s current process lacks transparency with respect to how ultimate decisions are made, and that it is difficult to be heard without being a large, influential organization with contacts inside Facebook,” the report states.

Facebook offered several broad commitments in response to the claims raised by the report. It is introducing new features to help users understand why content is or is not appearing in their feeds, creating an oversight board with “a diverse range of intellectual viewpoints” to review controversial content decisions, and hiring staff dedicated to working with right-leaning organizations.

One specific policy change cited in the report is an adjustment to Facebook’s policies on shocking and sensational content in advertising. A previous blanket policy banning images of medical tubes connected to human bodies was seen as unfair to anti-abortion ads, so now the site will only bar images where someone is in visible pain or distress or is bruised or bleeding.

“We know we need to take these concerns seriously and adjust course if our policies are in fact limiting expression in an unintended way,” Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice president of global affairs and communications, said in a blog post.

Another report from Kyl’s team is expected later this year. While the interim report sought to validate conservative suspicions that Facebook is biased against them, it failed to satisfy some of the site’s most vocal critics on the right.

“Merely asking somebody to listen to conservatives’ concerns isn’t an ‘audit,’ it’s a smokescreen disguised as a solution. Facebook should conduct an actual audit by giving a trusted third party access to its algorithm, its key documents, and its content moderation protocols,” said Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., who has proposed that the government enforce neutrality standards for social media platforms.

Brent Bozell, president of the Media Research Center, said Facebook’s response to the report is “empty and insulting.” His organization plans to meet with attorneys to discuss tech companies’ protections under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act and antitrust concerns.

“Facebook and Senator Kyl have sent a message to the entire conservative movement that they do not take our concerns seriously and have zero intention to change,” Bozell said. “I will say I never expected this. Those who told me working with Facebook was a fool's errand appear to be having the last word.”

The report also sparked anger from liberal groups that viewed its very existence as a concession to bad-faith conservative bullying that distracted from doubts about Facebook’s inability to effectively police white nationalist hate speech.

“This review is a make-believe solution in search of a phantom problem. Rather than allowing baseless allegations of so-called anti-conservative bias to distract them, Facebook officials should focus on the civil and human rights problems and white supremacist propaganda overrunning its platform,” said Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, in a statement.

Liberal watchdog group Media Matters for America pointed to extensive data showing right-leaning Facebook pages have consistently had as many or more user interactions than liberal ones, and Facebook content regarding abortions and migrant caravans has been overwhelmingly dominated by conservative pages.

“Facebook’s impulse to appease right-wing cries of bias, despite all evidence to the contrary, is yet again putting Facebook in a position where it'll be amplifying lies and enabling extremists, white supremacists, and Proud Boys at the expense of American democracy and with great risk to our safety,” said Media Matters President Angelo Caruscone.

Facebook declined to comment Wednesday on the response to the report or what the next phase of Kyl’s review will entail. However, some conservatives welcomed the changes the platform announced.

“We appreciate Facebook’s willingness to engage, but more importantly to act, and hope that other tech companies—some of whom are openly hostile to the pro-life community—will follow suit,” Mallory Quigley, vice president of communications for the Susan B. Anthony List, told Wired regarding the new policy on medical tubes in advertisements.

Though there are plenty of anecdotal claims from right-wing users about specific posts getting unfairly flagged, experts say evidence is lacking that Facebook is engaged in systematic suppression of conservative speech, and this report adds little to that conversation.

“What’s missing from the report is any real hard data that says there is bias,” said Michael Horning, an assistant professor of communication at Virginia Tech University who studies the social and psychological effects of communications technologies. “These are opinions people have. From that standpoint, we don’t really know exactly what’s true and what’s not.”

According to Nick Bowman, editor of Communication Research Reports and an associate professor of journalism and creative media industries at Texas Tech University, Facebook’s attempts to meet users’ growing demands for corporate social responsibility may be inadvertently ensnaring conservative content. The largely accurate perception that the people writing and enforcing content standards in Silicon Valley are predominantly liberal fuels qualms about the motives behind those decisions.

“You have large voices of people looking toward corporations to fix problems in society... Many of those social issues almost by definition run counter to a conservative social platform,” Bowman said, such as climate change, racial equality, and immigrant rights.

The report issued Tuesday suggests the tagging of mainstream conservative content as hate speech is indeed part of the problem.

“Some interviewees provided specific examples of instances in which they believed Facebook unfairly removed or downgraded content or Pages because they were conservative. For example, some cited erroneous removals of language from the Bible, the Declaration of Independence, and the writings of St. Augustine,” it states. “Many said they believe that conservative content is affected by adverse content enforcement actions more frequently than liberal content.”

Although the Kyl report offered little to back up complaints of anti-conservative bias, Bowman cautioned against the impulse to dismiss it entirely. If nothing else, it firmly underscored broader long-standing complaints about Facebook’s lack of transparency and could help spur the company to rectify labyrinthine and inconsistent content standards.

“The end goal of reminding the world’s largest social network they need to be more careful with how they dictate their terms of service... at least will help us understand the rules of the game,” he said.

While Kyl conducts his audit of Facebook from the right, civil rights leaders are simultaneously conducting an audit from the left to address “the opaque nature of Facebook’s content moderation and enforcement practices” with regard to hate speech. An interim report on that effort—which has so far taken a more in-depth view of moderation protocols, review tools, and ad targeting practices than Kyl’s—was released last month.

“It is important to note that we have been told that content identified by technology as potential hate speech is not immediately removed,” stated civil rights advocate Laura Murphy in that report. “Instead, it is flagged and routed to human content reviewers who can understand context and make a decision accordingly. Further, to ensure that reviewers have appropriate knowledge of local terminology and nuance, over 90% of U.S.-based hate speech is reviewed by teams based in the U.S.”

Murphy’s report alleges that Facebook’s hate speech moderation policies are too restrictive in some ways and too permissive in others. Posts that are critical of white nationalist content are sometimes mistakenly flagged as objectionable, while racist comments are left up because they do not contain certain trigger phrases.

Facebook has initiated pilot programs aimed at addressing those deficiencies. According to Horning, the dueling audits illustrate a potentially intractable challenge Facebook created for itself by setting standards for hate speech more stringent than the very narrow definition of the term under U.S. law.

“As long as it’s going to adopt its community standards based on corporate perceptions of what is and what isn’t hate speech, those standards are always going to be challenged by one side or the other,” Horning said.

As Facebook struggles to satisfy critics on the right and the left, Bowman said much of the controversy stems from a misunderstanding of what Facebook is by the public, politicians, and at times the company itself. It is a private business that owes nobody free speech, and the notion of Mark Zuckerberg deciding what is and is not acceptable speech in this country raises a host of problems.

“It’s not a political issue,” Bowman said. “It’s a larger issue where they’re a for-profit advertising company. I don’t think they ever intended to be the steward of the marketplace of ideas.”

High-profile claims of anti-conservative bias at Facebook have spread on the right since former employees alleged in 2016 that curators of its “Trending Topics” section were disproportionately favoring liberal news sources. Facebook got rid of those human curators and retooled the section, leading to new concerns that its algorithms were promoting misinformation and conspiracies.

Nevertheless, the company is looking to put employees in charge of curating news content again, hiring a team of editors to manage a new News Tab section of its mobile app that is intended to highlight real-time journalism and news. That effort is already generating eye-rolls and suspicion on the right.

“Because what everyone really needs is @facebook giving even more power and control to establishment corporate media hacks,” tweeted Donald Trump Jr. Tuesday.

Horning expects the News Tab will encounter many of the same problems Facebook’s past attempts to curate news did, with the most trusted and widely read mainstream sources being written off as liberally biased by conservatives. Engaging with conservative leaders and committing to transparency, as the company has with the Kyl audit, might help.

“I think it would be good for Facebook to continue to work on those problems,” Horning said. “Whether it’s a perception or reality of bias, they’re going to need to build trust with people who are conservative-leaning if they want to be inclusive of all viewpoints.”

However, Bowman is uncertain what it will take to build that trust at this point. Based on the concerns expressed in Kyl’s report and the pessimistic response to it from the right, the bridge between Menlo Park and the conservative intelligentsia may already be burned beyond repair.

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“The sad part is, I don’t think it’s going to help,” he said. “If you already think Facebook is against you, no amount of transparency is going to make you trust them.”

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